Putting the oldest people near the front of the line for COVID-19 shots will save more lives and may extend their lifespan, too, researchers say.
The new study findings challenge the view that older people should be lower on the list for shots because they have a shorter life expectancy, according to the team from the University of California, Berkeley.
"Since older age is accompanied by falling life expectancy, it is widely assumed that means we're saving fewer years of life," said lead author Joshua Goldstein, professor of demography.
"We show this to be mistaken," he added in a university news release. "The age patterns of COVID-19 [death rates] are such that vaccinating the oldest first saves the most lives and, surprisingly, also maximizes years of remaining life expectancy."
For the study, the researchers analyzed life expectancy in the United States, Germany and South Korea during the coronavirus pandemic. They based their calculations on the potential number of lives saved through vaccination, multiplied by the life expectancy of those vaccinated.
For example, if one million vaccinations saved 1,000 lives, and vaccinated people were projected to live 20 more years on average, a total 20,000 years of life would be saved.
The pandemic has claimed more than 500,000 lives in the United States, and 2.5 million worldwide.
The researchers found vaccinating people in their 90s would save three times as many lives as giving the same doses to people in their 80s.
The report was published online Feb. 25 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Since COVID-19 vaccines have become available, health experts have debated which groups should get priority for shots, given limited supplies and distribution.
"Allocating scarce COVID-19 vaccine doses involves many tradeoffs. However, a conflict between minimizing the count of deaths and maximizing remaining life is not one of them," Goldstein said.
"Before this study, it was suspected that there would be some intermediate age -- not too old and not too young -- which would maximize the benefit of a vaccine, in terms of person-years of life saved," he added. "But surprisingly, we show this is not the case."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID-19 vaccines.
SOURCE: University of California, Berkeley, news release, Feb. 25, 2021